Reviewed by Jeff Latosik

Paper Radio
Damian Rogers
ECW Press, 2009
120 pages, $16.95

Paper Radio is the debut collection from Damian Rogers, a former arts editor at Eye Weekly and recent writer-in-residence at Open Book: Toronto. Over the past year, she’s maintained a conspicuous presence in Canadian magazines; her collection comes amid one of the most diverse fall lists in recent memory. I wouldn’t be surprised if this collection finds a receptive audience both within and without the poetry community—no easy task, to be sure. Her poems are warm and inviting; they are also subtle and considered.

Rogers (who grew up in Detroit and completed an MFA at Bennington) writes in a surrealist-inflected style that is not out of place in the company of notable American writers loosely associated with the New York School (Dean Young and David Berman come to mind). This is not to pigeonhole her, for there are certainly many influences to parse out. But the work is clearly engaged. These are poets who have, to put it simply, built a compelling, urbane style around quirky diction, evocative and humorous imagery, and a tendency toward the unusual conceit.

What makes Rogers special is that she effortlessly incorporates a kind of heart-on-the-sleeve emotional sensibility with rich understanding of image and detail. For her, the concrete specifics gather force in a compact space and talk across the voice’s song-like current. Obviously, Rogers flexes other stylistic muscles, but even at her most difficult, the mood of a piece will exist in relation to voice, and the outcome is almost always organic, and often surprisingly so.

To see this effect in action, take the first poem in the collection, “Redbird,” in which we find everything Rogers does well: a compact, confessional lyric, a sensitivity to the charm of aphorism and a subtle undercutting of the surreal. Rogers adroitly charges her details, letting them accumulate and drive the poem forward in skewed but sensible ways. The red bird on the incidental matchbox at the beginning of the poem becomes, in the last line, “The red bird [that] eats everything in sight.” There’s an imaginative spark here—a way in which the poem lights and burns brightly and quickly that reflects the subject matter perfectly.

The villanelle “Keys,” later in the collection, also exhibits these strengths and is perhaps one of the most satisfying in the collection:

The bluebox van was filled with keys—
Your brother was a locksmith then
But he never broke into me.

There’s a penchant for the surreal here but there is also a distinct voice, an emotional resonance that is neither precious nor overstated. Rogers toes the line between quirky and relatable in the compact space of several stanzas.

The challenge here is keeping the torque on the image once the poems begin to lengthen. When do they start to seem more pretty or “poetic” than profound? When do they start to merely reach but not grasp?

To be sure, Rogers has ample profundity. Like musician-turned-poet Berman, she has a knack for the deceptively simple—the friendly punch that leaves a bigger-than-expected bruise. Though perhaps the chosen image is sometimes too easy. To get more at what I mean, let’s look at this passage from “Running Along Ontario:

Monarchs follow me as I run to the lake.
It’s cold. Their batteries are running out.

Last night, my eyes were blindfolded. I held a sword in each hand.

Once, a man asked me if my eyes changed colour like the lake.
Then he told me he loved me. I laughed at him.
We were strangers.

The first line is perfect: the metaphor creates a naïveté that works within the context of the scene. Running to the lake (reminiscent of childhood) is set against the image of batteries being depleted. The monarchs, the lake, the voice—the constellation of images is in no way easy, but it takes flight and lingers.

However, the rest here puts too much weight on unexpected images and, as a result, the authorial voice is clouded. The details are evocative, but they seem charged with more weight than they’ve earned. The swords, the blindfold, the lake (here, the through-line, perhaps), the man—the cocktail is not the same. What is the relation? When we get to “he told me he loved me,” I’m less able to draw connections.

It would be too easy to say that a line has to always be more than an accumulation of evocative images—that it has to always be anchored by theme or voice or whatever else you might hang your hat on. Although part of me does want to say that it is this easy: when we see the effect work best, perhaps what is also clarified is when it stumbles. Of the two tendencies in this passage, it’s the first that I prefer.

If it seems I’m being hard on Rogers now, the good news is that this is a minor concern. And, more importantly, her work is sublimely inviting. What I’ve mentioned here is, perhaps, a larger challenge for a poetry that sustains a high torque on image and metaphor. When does the image just become flashy and when does it actually serve to enrich the stanza and poem as a whole? Accordingly, if there’s a place where I think Rogers is best, it’s where she allows her knack for image to work within the context of an emotionally or geographically grounded scene.

Jeff Latosik is living in the “main floor apartments of the night” somewhere in Toronto. His first book will appear in spring 2010, courtesy of Insomniac Press.

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